The Lao communities on the Khorat Plateau and the upper Mekong were not united under a Lao ruler until the 14th century. Lao legends claim that their kingdom got started when the son of the ruler of Luang Prabang fled to exile in Cambodia, where his wife bore a son. This prince, Fa Ngum, was given an army by the Khmers and he marched up the Mekong River with it, conquering first the communities of central and southern Laos, then Xiengkhouang on the Plain of Jars(1), and finally Luang Prabang itself, where he was crowned king in 1353. The new kingdom was named Lan Xang, the "Land of a Million Elephants." He devoted the rest of his reign to enlarging the state, until it was considered an equal by its older neighbors. The internal balance of power, however, was delicate, and Fa Ngum himself was deposed by one of his ministers in 1373 because his wars demanded too much from his subjects; he also took the women of the kingdom for his harem as frequently as he conscripted the men as soldiers.
Fa Ngum's successors brought peace & prosperity to Laos by political marriages with Siam and Chiangmai. The long period of calm lasted until 1478, when a Vietnamese invasion captured Luang Prabang, forcing the king to abdicate and flee. The unfortunate king's younger brother, Souvanna Banlang (1479-86), stayed behind to regroup the scattered Lao forces and liberate the country. The Vietnamese were defeated badly enough to follow a policy of good relations with Lan Xang for the next two centuries.
Another period of calm followed until the Lao king Phothisarat (1520-47) got involved in the on-and-off war between Siam and Chiangmai. The last king of Chiangmai died childless in 1543, and Phothisarat, whose mother was a Chiangmai princess, promptly claimed the empty throne. So did Siam and a Shan prince named Mekut'i. Laos won the first round, and Phothisarat placed his son, prince Setthathirat, on the Chiangmai throne. However, the Laotian king died only thirteen months later, and Setthathirat had to hurry to Luang Prabang to claim his father's throne before somebody else did. That gave Siam and the Shans a second chance. All three kingdoms were fighting over Chiangmai when a revitalized Burma appeared on the scene.
1 - The Plain of Jars got its name from the huge, ancient burial urns that dot the landscape. It has strategic value for its tin and iron deposits, and because it is the only significant piece of flat land in northern Laos. Many battles were fought over it in the Second Indochina War.
©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball